Friday, June 17, 2011

Immoral Market Hazard

Thomas Friedman calls Michael J Sandel, the Harvard University political philosopher “a rock star in Asia” as people in China, Japan and South Korea scalp tickets to hear him.

Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? has sold over a million copies in East Asia. He talks about morals, or lack of it, in present capitalist set-up. His debates have engaged young East Asians, as they are tired of “dry, technical aspects of economics, business or engineering,” argues Friedman.

Sandel argues that ‘market’ has profound limitations. Though, he is not a communist, he explains eloquently, market norms crowd out non-market norms. There are ample situations where market erodes, corrupts values. These values are more important than market. Morality is one such value. He stresses: economic issues have political, and more importantly, moral implications, that needs to be understood.

Is justice and market at loggerheads with each other? Is it fair to raise the price of snow shovels after a snowstorm? I have better example: owners of functional cars, which survived devastating tsunami and earthquake in Japan earlier this year, fleeced huge amounts of money from stranded people to transport their family and goods to safer locations. Is this okay? It does not require a Harvard professor to tell “unfettered markets create inequality and social discord.” India is a standing example. It is a poor country of filthy rich people.

Sandel popularity is pegged in the disillusionment of youth in East Asia with market and its capitalist ways. The realisation is getting deeper and more distressing with time. They are ready to confront that ethical question attached to plain economics and market at play. “In recent years, seemingly technical economic questions have crowded out questions of justice and the common good. I think there is a growing sense that GDP and market values do not by themselves produce happiness, or a good society. My dream is to connect students across cultures and national boundaries — to think through these hard moral questions together, to see what we can learn from one another,” explains Sandel.

I am perplexed that amorality can be so rewarding. The capitalist system favours the rich, it is about controlling critical natural and other resources, which is same as snatching the whole humanity with the right to use these critical resources, unless can pay for it. The resources we are talking about here are as basic as water and soil. The local communities have been alienated from the forests, land, minerals that they used in a sustainable manner for many centuries. These resources has been MOUed to big private players, for, as is now coming to the fore, huge kickbacks to politicians and bureaucrats, and paltry license fee to the government. Millions of displaced rural denizens are paupers; they steal and beg to pay for the produce of their own land and resources.

Millions of rural, landless poor are rushing to various cities in search of livelihood. They are deskilled, displaced, dispossessed and highly marginalized people. This could be one of the key reasons for the recent surge in urbanisation in India. This aspect needs to be investigated, explained. I am sorry to say, this is not a success story of !ncredible India, where an agrarian society is graduating to become industrialised, urbanised society, propelled by growth, and to tap further growth potential. There are pockets of excellence and riches, and it is growing, that gives this impression of all-is-well, but the huge backlog of poverty, issue of depravity, and injustice cannot be pushed under the carpet for long.

But, the market forces operate unaffected by this grim reality. Market provides pecuniary incentive that seems to be the strongest motivator. Need for money is a reality that cannot be underestimated. But there is a need for what I call a moral adjustment. There should be agreeable, basic to life spheres where the market should not be allowed to run amok.

I think government has a great role to play here. They have to ensure that market forces are less fierce to the marginalized. The government has to play a crucial role in ensuring equitable distribution by fiscal and monetary policy means. But the tragedy is that even the government is overawed by the market forces. The monetary value, or the cash involved in these anti-people projects colour their vision.

Morality is about the need to introspect, adjust, and humanise the growth process. Sandel has a valid point: moral decisions are inherently about justice. I was reading some of his writing and utube videos of his lectures, comments he gets are interesting, some were very nasty, like: “we are still debating similar questions is because we produce retards at a higher rate than we do produce smart people.” another comment was: “Free market, or free exchange according to free wills of individuals, is the most moral thing in the entire universe --- compared to any other mechanism.” That would hold true if the 'free' will/market/exchange has not come out of subjugating a community.

It is ample clear, Sandel, is a rock star in Asia, not in the US.

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